It was one of the weirdest weeks Albany has ever experienced—and for New York’s scandal ridden, incestuous capital, that’s saying something. It was early February 2010, and a New York Times investigative team was focusing on Governor David Paterson—just what the resulting story would say no one knew, not even the reporters at work on it.
But in a city where gossip and rumors swirl, the governor’s press staffers soon found themselves denying lurid stories about the governor’s sex life, often to reporters who had no reporting substantiating the tales.
One of those reporters was Michael Gormley, the Associated Press’s capitol editor. Elements of his work are recorded in e-mails the state released in response to a Freedom of Information Law request made by CJR. According to one accounting in the release by Gormley—crafted, he wrote, to “win back” the trust of the governor’s communications director—the AP’s pitched debates over how to fairly cover the maelstrom set off internal “panic” and put Gormley’s job on the line.
The Associated Press’s wire has unrivaled reach, and a sterling reputation for ethics. If the wire wrote up the rumors permeating Albany, even in a denuded form, their jump to the media’s mainstream would be complete, available for publication around the world, and sure to be followed on by every news outlet in the state—and many across the country.
While the governor’s press secretaries rotely batted away inquiries with variations on “all rumors are false,” rumors of an impending, incredibly damaging, New York Times piece quickened into written words on Friday, February 5, with blog posts and a tweet.
While the state’s newspapers stayed quiet on the mess through the weekend, on Super Bowl Sunday, the Associated Press broke its silence.
Just before noon that day, Gormley wrote to Peter Kauffmann, the governor’s communications director, seeking to turn the very things the governor’s press staff had to fear about the AP into an asset, and relating two rumors (one rather lurid) that he’d heard:
Kauffmann wrote back denying that they’d been asked about anything like that:
That evening at 7:17, less than an hour after the game’s kick off, Gormley emailed Peter Kauffmann to tell them that he expected the AP would run a story that night saying that he had learned the governor had been discussing his “future in the job” with legislators. The e-mail mentioned “unspecified personal issues” that the New York City tabloids might write on.
Gormley wrapped up his e-mail with a line suggesting the AP felt it had no option:
Kauffmann fired back, trying to persuade Gormley that he was “chasing a phantom”:
But the AP would not be deterred from getting something out. Gormley emailed Kauffmann to let him know that his opportunity to comment for the AP’s story was rapidly closing.
The wire ran a thirteen-paragraph story, with an opening sentence stating that “questions swirl around the state capitol about unproven accusations involving personal conduct.” Kauffmann’s pushback from the 7:53pm email made it into the story verbatim, except that it was attributed to Richie Fife, then Paterson’s 2010 campaign manager. (Fife, beyond offering that it was a “brilliant quote,” declined to comment on how Kauffmann’s words came to be attributed to him.)
Gormley had told Kauffmann that he was scheduled to fly to Washington on Sunday or Monday to attend a conference, but in the midst of the weekend’s chaos he scuttled the trip. He e-mailed Kauffmann at 2pm:
An hour later, Kauffmann emailed Gormley to ask if he was in Albany and could come and conduct a face-to-face interview with the governor in about a half hour. Kauffmann promised his staff would find a “discrete way” for the meeting to take place.
Gormley wrote up the interview, where the governor denounced a New York Post Page Six item from January 30, claiming state troopers had caught him “snuggling” a woman who was not his wife as a fabrication, and complained that the unpublished Times story had “spawned a bunch of speculations that are so way out that it’s shocking.”